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How to get into Y Combinator (samaltman.com)
182 points by sama on Oct 3, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 53 comments

We want to fund founders that are going to be successful.

I love Y Combinator, and I'm proud to be a part of it, but I've been thinking a lot about this recently...

Many many organizations exist, whose purpose is to filter people who want to do something down to the few percent who are most likely to succeed at that thing, and then to help those people get even more likely to succeed at it.

But that seems like it's actually a kind of operating on diminishing returns. If I take someone who is 90% likely to succeed at something, and help them to become 95%, is that really a better use of my time than if I take someone who is at 50%, and bump them up to 80%?

From an investment point of view of course I can see why people would do the former. But I wonder if the world might be a better place if we could figure out how to do the latter?

It depends how hard the problem is. In an introductory writing class, you get maximum utility by letting anyone in. Whereas a graduate math class will usually have pretty stiff prerequisites; the median undergraduate would get zero benefit from such a class.

Startups are more like a graduate math class. Most people aren't suited to it.

Also, I think your numbers are off. We're not funding people whose chance of succeeding is 90%. I doubt anyone starting a startup has a 90% chance of succeeding. We'd be delighted if our success rate was as high as 50%. Maybe we're bumping people's chances up from 30% to 40%.

Startups are more like a graduate math class. Most people aren't suited to it.

That's a good point. It makes me think I would have to start younger (and with more basics), if I wanted to help a lot more people figure out how to do startups. A little bit about my background might help explain why I'm thinking about these things the way I am:

Until I was 16 year old, my maths teachers told me and my parents that I just wasn't suited to the subject. I agreed with them! It seemed impenetrable and boring. Then a kind physics teacher finally explained what maths is really about, and taught me a few of the things I had missed in the last few years. Within a few months I went from nearly bottom of my year to easily top, and eventually got a PhD in pure mathematics.

This experience often makes me suspect there are large numbers of people who could be great in some field, if only someone would help them with the first few steps. Of course I have nothing to back up this suspicion with, and perhaps people have less latent talent than I like to believe. But then again, maybe not.

Also, I think your numbers are off.

Definitely. I chose them more to make my point intuitive than to reflect the reality of startups.

> Then a kind physics teacher finally explained what maths is really about, and taught me a few of the things I had missed in the last few years.

Sounds like you are hoping to follow in your teacher's footsteps and help others via education.

Have you considered writing about your experience? I would love to read about the math truths your teacher imparted.

Also maybe a program like Big Brothers Big Sisters would interest you? http://www.bbbs.org

if only someone would help them with the first few steps

FWIW, I completely agree and am also hoping to help people take the right first steps.

In an introductory writing class, you get maximum utility by letting anyone in.

Even then—at least at the college level—a lot of universities have tracks of various kinds; at the University of Arizona, there's a normal 101 / 102 class sequence (where most students land), a 109 class (where students with AP or other credentials land), and a development class the name of which escapes me (where students who basically can't write land). From what I can tell, a lot of high schools do something similar.

Even then, I've seen students in 101 who really can't write, and students in 109 who clearly can't take the pace.

Maybe we're bumping people's chances up from 30% to 40%.

This reminds me of MFA programs, which are basically trying to do the same thing: most people in MFA programs never publish anything substantial. But the goal of the program is to give the kind of boost you're describing.

Well, the real goal might actually be to provide employment for the profs, but at the very least the subsidiary goal of helping 10% go to 20%, or being a catalyst for many people, persists.

Success isn't binary. YCombinator is more like a multiplier on your success than anything else. It's like if you were going to be a 50 million dollar company, YCombinator can make you a 100 or 200 million dollar company. If you weren't going to succeed in the first place, YCombinator isn't likely to make a difference.

Sure, if you take 100 people at 90% and get them up to 95%, you have five fewer failures whereas 100 people from 50% to 80% means 30 fewer failures.

However, the 90% are mostly under their own power and need small amounts of guidance and money. The 50% would need a lot more equity and time to learn everything the 90% know. So, the number of people who could participate would be a lot smaller.

Fortunately, there is a very scalable thing that gets people from 50% to 80% and it's answers.onstartups, PG essays, Art of the Start, etc. When people graduate from all that, advanced programs are ready for them.

That's actually a great question. I've thought of YC as more of the Ivy League experience. Exclusive. Great brand. (No disrespect intended). And, I think that (unintentionally?) pg and the YC partners have modeled a lot of YC around an Ivy League model.

The question that I'm interested in with Hackers & Founders, is how do we teach thousands of engineers how to build great products, and once doing that, how to you help them build great startups, and then how to you help those founders turn around and be serial entrepreneurs.

Tons of VC's that I talk to tend to turn up their nose at our community, and proceed to tell me, "Send me your Rock Stars".

My question to them, is... "Where do rock star entrepreneurs come from? Do they descend from heaven on a cloud like Mark Zuckerberg? Or, do they try a bunch of things, fail a lot, and then slowly become rock stars?"

I've had beer with 5 out of BusinessWeek's "Top 20 entrepreneurs under 30" two or three years ago. Did I know they were rock stars then? Nope. No clue.

I'm really interested in having H&F, and all the grass roots startup communities that we partner with around the globe be a support system to failing entrepreneurs. If entrepreneurs fail enough for long enough, they generally improve their entrepreneurial skills with each startup they create. Eventually, they become rock stars. YMMV

It depends on your view of what makes the world a better place.

For tech startups, the distribution of world-changing impact probably closely follows the distribution of investment returns. If it's extremely bimodal, then it makes sense to concentrate on generating big wins.

Accept that it's more like taking someone that has a 10% chance of success and moving them to 20%.

Most of the applicants to YC have a near zero percent chance of success. With or without help.

My friend (and co-founder) and I have applied for winter 2012. Even if we don't get in, I don't think it will change much of who we are, or what we're driven by.

But I guess my biggest question has been this: In the event that we (any anyone else going through this process) don't get in, how hard should we spend thinking about that? And what I mean is, every time I've done something I spend some amount of time evaluating how it went and what I learned from it. In the case of YC, it's about the idea + founders, so if we didn't get in, I would need to spend some amount of time evaluating the idea + founders and deciding what it means.

That doesn't scare me, instead I think that's the most exciting part. To be incredibly self-critical is the only way to make great things. As much as we were writing our answers for those who will evaluate them, we were also writing them for ourselves.

Great post, makes me feel more optimistic about the entire ordeal.

Edit: meant winter 2012

I wish I could say it means a lot if you don't make it to the interview stage, because that would imply we're really good judges. But unfortunately we know we miss a lot of good applications. We have thousands of applications to read, and not much time to do it in. It's difficult for us to distinguish between applications that are genuinely weak, and those where the founders just don't present themselves very well.

Do you have a system that would allow you to detect and prevent patterns analogous to "justice is what the judge ate for breakfast" (more formally known as "legal realism")?

See for example:



Couldn't the point be made that those founders who don't present themselves well, might have a bit more trouble presenting their startup to customers? i.e. They can't sell themselves well, so it could be argued that they might have trouble selling the benefits of their startup to customers?


Good point, but there are still two ways YC could miss good applicants: (1) they present themselves better in some other medium that customers care about, or (2) they don't know how to sell yet, but have an aptitude for learning to sell.

That said, I don't know how the YC application process could be changed to catch either of those situations.

Yes, those two things are correlated, although they are not the same. I imagine based on what pg said that there are startups that are great in every respect except how they present themselves to YC.

I'm also applying with two friends. Even if we don't get in, we've already been changed due to the application.

Filling out the app made the idea more real for all of us, and in the process we discovered that our fourth founder really wasn't passionate about the idea, and isn't ready to leave his day job. Had we not gone through the application process, we probably would have lost a lot of steam in trying to work with a founder that wasn't fully committed.

Also, we've been in a mad rush to get a MVP up and running. The idea is about three weeks old at this point, and the MVP will be up in the next few days. Had we not been motivated by the looming deadline (and wanting to get the app in early) we might have just thought about the idea for months, instead of actually implementing it.

Finally, the idea we're applying with is kind of my baby. I went out and found my co-founders by pitching the idea to everyone I could find, taking feedback, refining, and pitching more. I'm a back-end guy, and I needed front-end co-founders. Now I have a UI ninja and an amazing designer working with me to build a product we all believe in. If it weren't for the application, I would have just fiddled around with the backend code on my own, which doesn't exactly create an engaging user experience.

It almost doesn't matter if we get accepted at this point (not to say that I wouldn't be elated), because we're in such a better spot than we were a month ago.

The application for me forced me to grasp a clear picture of my vision from the fuzzy direction that my prototype has been heading in.The intro video process really helped me arrive at a concrete and concise pitch that doesn't rely on me demo-ing the app on a screen, which is what I usually do.

One thing you should do is update your HN profile to include links and other info. I'm sure I'm not the only one who reads HN who is looking to fund people regardless of yc application. I did check out alexhaefner.com but not much is there. If you have something to say make it easy to find. Also if your domain is alexhaefner.com get rid of bluehost as the registrant and put it in your name.

I agree with you completely, I've made some changes already. The site that I want to show people is about a week away from being where I would advertise it though. It will be on my profile soon.

Thanks for the advice!

If you don't get in I'd say you should launch anyway. Listen to your customers, hustle, and you'll succeed regardless of YC.

I'd also highly suggest moving to the bay area. Meeting the right people and getting your name out there is just SO much easier (we just did this and it's night and day, regardless of Austin being a good startup town as well).

We're in the same boat, we just applied for Winter 2011 with what we think is a great team, solid idea, and some early traction. If we don't get in we'll still be focusing on launching, traction, and listening to our customers early on.

Hey cwilson, can you elaborate on why you think "meeting the right people and getting your name out there is just SO much easier" in the Bay Area? Do you mean getting your name out to customers, investors, potential hires, potential acquirers, or some combination?

I'm not cwilson, but... all of those. The Bay Area has more hype for new startups, more investors, more software engineers, more acquiring companies, and more early adopters who will try your new site (and quite possibly pay for same).

we are in the same boat as you in our w2012 application. we applied early enough since we had most of the pieces together. i agree that the wait time plays tricks with your head. checking hacker news, email, and our phones multiple times a day doesn't really ease the anxiety. but exciting none the less.

we want this as much as the next guy, if not more, but we also know getting in is not the end result, it's only the beginning. it's gonna get much tougher once you're in!

the advice i got a few week ago really helped: "don't put all your eggs in one basket" The more NOs you hear the closer you'll get to YES (unless...)

Cisco systems, pitched 70+ VCs/investors before it got funding, similar stories for intel, ebay, amazon, google, twitter, and so on...

How likely are edits that I make to our application to be read? I've updated once or twice just to fix some glaring typo or to update on our progress (I feel like we make notable strides almost weekly). If our application has already been read, do updates get reflected in such a way that the readers know to re-read it?

Depends when. Right now few of us are more than skimming applications, so it's unlikely anyone saw your earlier versions.

I think part of the issue with focusing on applying to YC is the filter. It is much easier to get a job or get funded if you are not competing with others and are only evaluated on your own merits. (Or to get a date for that matter. Would you rather be in a room competing with other guys/gals or just on your own making a pitch?)

To many people decide to line themselves up and be compared. It can make more sense to separate from the pack and be creative and pitch other likely sources.

It's not about getting into YC. It's about getting your idea off the ground and getting funded. If all you have is the wherewithal or creativity to apply to YC or Techstars etc you aren't an entrepreneur.

I got a job in tech years ago at a valley company that I was in no way qualified for by getting in an airplane and flying to a trade show in CA to walk the floor and meet with sales managers. I had no competition. Even though I was only marginally qualified for any position at this company I got a job.

I definitely understand the response. If you have to ask if you're an entrepreneur, if you have to even think about it, you're not. I get that. However for someone like me it's not so simple. I have two years of school left in the midwest. I have little interest in finishing school. But I came from a blue collar town and so I have no connections, and a lot of school debt.

So I work on my projects at night, and classes during the day. I get internships in the bay, and continue to build and iterate on what I've made. I have no intention of stopping at YC, or just building these projects to fluff up a resume. I do both of these things because they are worthwhile to me. But realistically, I can't just leave school and start a business, because my loan debt would kill me and my business. Without some sort of connection to funding I'm dead in the water. So I will continue to build my personal projects with my co-founder, and use them to learn and work towards having a sustainable business that someone wants to fund.

I'd be curious to hear your feedback.

I like the analogy that Paul used re a grad math class. In our masters program, < 10 survived out of ~30. Many chose to get out at the grad-dip level as their goal was to get a job.

In some ways, a start-up is remarkably more difficult than any structured class. It is not a co-incidence that many of the most successful start-ups ( i.e. Google / Facebook et.al. ) started as projects.

Investors like to think about markets and path to revenue. But to build stuff , you'd need to love the problem itself and care deeply about what you're building. Because at many points in the ride, the financial or commercial end will not be in sight.

Another correct question perhaps is " How to pick an addictive problem ? "

A group that some of us love :


One of the stacks Gremlin works atop is neo4j which raised an excess of 10M recently.. again I would have to warrant that the game is to pick a difficult problem , preferably few years ahead before it becomes " hot ".

Here's a powerful section from a beautiful film:

" He does, an assignment to refurbish the Sistine Chapel for him. But after an attempt at some saints, he leaves Rome, and flees to his beloved Carrara. There, surrounded by mountains, he has a vision at sunset and suddenly knows what he must do. Obtaining Julius's reluctant permission, he sets to work covering that modest ceiling with tremendous figures, a bearded Jehovah, a recumbent Adam touched to life by a divine spark, the world's most famous fresco painted from a homemade scaffolding; in spite of illness, missed meals, filth, deprivation, cold, an injury that nearly costs him his eye and more, including the Pope's indifference to his intense passion for his art, Michelangelo endures. "When will you make an end?" Julius cries. "When I have done," the artist insists. "[1]

[1] - http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058886/reviews

My partner and I are applying, but like others have said, we're not betting the farm on it. If we get accepted, great, if not...well, we keep doing what we're doing, which is make software.

We just want to have an opportunity to work on our idea full-time.

I'm planning on applying for the Summer 2012 round as a single founder, plus a friend who helps me with marketing (whom I had a prior agreement with). After reading the essay on the main page, it left me a little unsure about the chances of getting in whilst applying solo.

Although after reading this post, I feel more sure of myself about the issue. Mainly because he didn't mention anything about the number of founders per startup, but purely the quality.

Glad this was posted.

I believe DropBox was a single founder applicant

YC funds a number of single-founder efforts. I know Notifo and Greplin made it to demo day as one-man shows.

In general, the harder the filter, easier it is for those selected. You can think of yC as prep-school for what is ahead at Sand Hill. The correct question perhaps is " how to clear demo day and land an A round from top-tier VC ?". An effort within striking zone of that will ensure that you don't waste the opportunity at yC.

"Startups at this stage need to be building their product and talking to their users"

What happens when a startup like ours is not building their product (due to complicated legal issues) but they're talking to customers? How can we show that we've been doing our homework in this regard?

Sounds more legal than anything that would be called a "startup," (yet). I'd say that showing your work in your context would involve being able to reassure people that the complicated legal issues are not issues.

Thanks for writing this. Glad you've cleared up some of the questions I hear a lot. I've seen a lot of posts which claim to have some kind of template to get in, which doesn't make any sense in my opinion.

I know the average age of applicants is something like 26 or so, but my team and I are all juniors and seniors in college. Do you have any tops on how to make younger applicants stand out?

Thanks for the short write up. Pretty simple and to the point. I like the part about building a demo, I think it shows ambition, drive, and vision on many levels. Thanks again.

Questions about the demo:

- When will it actually be accessed? Can we continue make updates after the application deadline?

- Should the demo be tailored so that anyone can use it without one of us guiding him?

I wish there were concrete examples of deep insights.

Would help understand how you come up with deep insights.

Plus it would be an interesting read I'm sure.

Just curious if he moved forward as a solo founder of if you guys arranged for him to find a cofounder.

We encouraged him to find one, but Drew found one himself.

Do you think in some cases it would make sense to be a single founder?

Do you mean, would it ever be an advantage to? I can't think of a case where it would.

Well, I might know of one...I'll tell you at the interview :)

Looking outside and seeing people get wet as they go from their car to the lobby is observation. Noting that you could put a place to borrow/leave umbrellas in the lobby and near where cars park is an insight. Figuring out that the reason they are coming and parking and going into the lobby can be re-interpreted so that they don't have to leave home/office and even bother getting wet is a 'deep' insight.

The link that pg gives to the drobbox app is full of win. It isn't about shared storage 'per se' its about the things that currently suck and will suck less with less effort when this capability is available.

Insight is looking past the problem and finding the underlying intent, and then re-working the solution based on that intent.

How important is the video component in the application process?

It's important not to skip it. It's also very important not to read from a prepared text; we tell people over and over not to do that, and for some reason they keep thinking they can fool us.

It's not important that the video have high production values, or that you sell us on the idea within it.

Do you think into account the fact that for non-native speakers this is complicated? Our application sounds a lot like a sales pitch but only because we have to train many, many times to make ourselves understood.

Even if we're fluent in english, it's not natural for us to speak it (much less against a camera) so it ends up sounding like we're reading from a script or something.

From what I've read over the years, very. It's an opportunity for the reviewers to get a feel of your team's overall personality, how well you seem fit together, and another view of your product.

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